Book Review: Horace Afoot

© Kelly Nelson

It’s a book about identity, small town life, existential wonderings and the closing and opening of hearts. © Kelly Nelson

“I hate internal combustion engines and the civilization that has been built on them.”

So declares the narrator on the first page of the novel Horace Afoot. It’s a book about identity, small town life, existential wonderings and the closing and opening of hearts. It’s also the story of an anti-car man trying to live in a car-dominated society.

Horace lives in a small American town where corn grows in the summer, snow piles up in the winter and everyone owns a car except for Horace who walks.

His anti-car perspective creates some amusing scenes. While walking along a tree-lined residential street, Horace watches as a passing car screeches to a halt after the windshield is pelted with rocks. The driver leaps from his car calling the unseen kids “bastards” and seeking retribution. Horace does not reveal the where abouts of the kids who he considers to be a “band of little Luddites” who “are only trying to preserve the tranquility of their street by discouraging people … from driving down it.”

In another scene, a lawn care guy stops by and offers to mow Horace’s overgrown yard. “I’ll hire you,” Horace says, “on one condition. That you do everything by hand. No power mowers. Nothing that has a motor.” The guy takes a look, shakes his head and drives away.

The author, Frederick Reuss, pokes at car culture with his choice of words: cars are “growling boxes” that are “groomed” and “tucked into garages.” Chevy, I learned, is a variation of the word chivvy which means to harass. (I think of that now—harassment—when a Tahoe or Suburban roars past me on my bike.)

Although there are death threats, arrests, rapes, a murder and burglaries in this book, it moves with a quiet slowness, at a walking pace.

Horace, as a character, can be described as an intelligent, literary iconoclast and as an odd, repressed loner. He has no family, friends or career. He has legally changed his name at least three times. He telephones strangers and asks them about happiness, illusion and St. Bernard dogs. Town folks see him as a lunatic, a loafer, an untrustworthy weirdo. I’ve made the diagnosis that he has Asperger’s syndrome: he’s smart, verbal and socially skittish. I wonder: do carfree characters in novels tend to be depicted as unusual and out of step?

As the book unfolds, Horace starts to connect with people: he befriends a dying librarian and reads aloud to him in his hospice bed; he gives money to a small-time cocaine dealer so she can start over again, somewhere else, away from her hoodlum boyfriend. He takes a job at the library. He gets a pet. Please, don’t have him buy a car, I thought nervously. There had been suggestions along the way: there’s a scene where middle-aged Horace drives a car for the first time and an acquaintance tells him, “One of these days you’re going to get sick of walking, and when you do I want to be right there to help you pick out a brand new car.” By the end of the book, Horace has changed his name again but not his carfree ways.

Kelly Nelson

Tempe, Arizona, USA

Horace Afoot

Frederick Reuss

MacMurray & Beck, 1997

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Planet Walker: 22 Years of Walking, 17 Years of Silence.

“How do I fit into a sixty-mile-per-hour world when I am traveling at three?” - ©Kelly Nelson

“How do I fit into a sixty-mile-per-hour world when I am traveling at three?” - ©Kelly Nelson

In 1972, at the age of 26, John Francis gave up driving. He also stopped riding in cars and trucks, on motorcycles and buses, trains and planes. No motorized vehicles at all. He would walk instead.

His decision roused strong reactions in the small community north of San Francisco where he was living.
“I like getting around too much to give it up,” his live-in girlfriend said of driving.
“This is only a phase you’re going through,” said his mom.
“We are getting ready to have a baby so it’s nothing we could do,” said a female friend.
“You think you’re better than me. Isn’t that right?” asked a hostile neighbor.
“You are just crazy. One person walking is not going to make any difference in reducing air pollution or oil spills,” chimed onlookers.
“Hell no, that ain’t crazy. If you don’t want to drive cars then you shouldn’t,” said a male friend.

Francis became a quirky local character, someone who would set out a day early to meet friends for a movie in a town 25 miles away.

Then he decided to stop speaking.

This was seen as even weirder than giving up fuel-powered transportation.
While some, including his parents, questioned his sanity, others started calling him a saint and a hero: his walking wasn’t just tramping around, it was a pilgrimage. He began carrying a banjo and a journal to paint and write in. “Walking is in me to do,” Francis writes. “Birds are born with wings. I was born with feet.”

This book details his eleven years living and walking in California and Oregon and his seven years walking silently across the country, stopping in Montana to earn a master’s degree in environmental studies, stopping again in Wisconsin to take doctoral classes in land resources. It is a picturesque depiction of a cross-country trek in the days before e-mail and GPS. It’s not altogether clear how he paid for things and foot surgery, a huge event for a walker, is mentioned only briefly. He does bike ride at times, usually when he’s settled in a place, waiting out the winter or attending school, but it’s not his first choice: “It is not the same as walking, moving slowly on the ground, feeling every rock and stone.”

My favorite moment in the book comes when the Coast Guard offers him a job (he had started speaking again). He is in New England at the time and tells them he can start the job in two months after he has biked all the way to Washington D.C. and they say okay. Once there, he tells them he can take business trips of no more than 300 miles (the distance he can bike in three days) and they agree to that too. Imagine a world where all employers support and adapt to vehicle-free lifestyles!

In the final chapter, Francis devotes only two paragraphs to his decision to start using cars again. (His wife and kids get a mere two sentences.) As he tells it, he realized that his “decision not to use motorized vehicles had become a prison.” It’d be better for his family and his work, he thought, to use fuel-powered transportation again. So after 22 years of walking, he started traveling in cars and planes.

As someone who has lived carfree for ten years, I wanted to hear more about this decision and how his life changed once it became motorized. And I wouldn’t have minded hearing about how he met his wife and how they set up a life together.

This book, illustrated with more than ninety drawings by the author, resounds with the message that there are things you see and experience when walking that you miss when traveling by car.

Kelly Nelson
Tempe, Arizona USA

By John Francis
National Geographic, 2008, 288 pp.

Additional Information:
Planetwalk, the non-profit organization Francis founded, aims to promote “earth stewardship and peace through pilgrimage.” On the website you can read about his yearly week-long walks as he retraces his cross-country trek this time with GPS, vehicle support, an Internet technician and a plane ticket back to California where he lives.

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Just do it. Walk.

Mixed use path in Copenhagen

Congratulations! If you live in Copenhagen, Amsterdam or Portland, Oregon, you are in one of the world’s most bike-friendly cities. If you’re a bicycle commuter in one of these lovely towns, or others where bicycling is popular, you may glow with a little inner smugness. If you are one of many who drive to work or to run your errands, or who live where bicycling just doesn’t seem practical, you are not alone. Still, you may be feeling a little peer pressure. You may have a bicycling colleague who bounces into the office with healthy, rosy, rain-misted cheeks. You may see shoppers in the aisles of your local stores carrying handy bike baskets and dangling bike helmets conspicuously, buying healthy bananas and energy bars. Their presence makes you and your car in the parking lot, even if it’s a fuel-efficient hybrid, feel guilty, like every step you take is leaving a giant, sooty, carbon footprint. Maybe you should give up the car, get the bike out of the cellar and become One of Them. My advice? Resist.

I’m a bicycle commuter myself, but I’m the first to admit, it’s a tough transition. First, there’s the stuff. Maybe you already have a bike messenger-style bag in the closet somewhere, but if you normally have a briefcase or purse in hand, where are you going to put it? How professional is it to walk into a corporate meeting with a bike pannier slung over your shoulder? And it’s raining again. Do you have a weatherproof jacket?

Rain pants? Overshoes? Water-resistant gloves? I’ve seen people on bikes with umbrellas, but it doesn’t look easy, and then how are you going to answer your mobile phone? Or more relevantly, use the brakes?

No, if you want to be part of the new, green world of change and maybe drop a kilo or so, your task is not to step out of your solid, 4-wheels-on-the-pavement vehicle and throw your leg over a wobbly 10-speed that pitches your head forward and your ass in the air. Instead, your mission this: just walk. Many of the amenities that make a city a great place to bicycle, will work for pedestrians, too, like traffic-calming landscaping or the Rails to Trails paths that are for walkers or bicyclists. A 2007 survey in the United States found that when non-bicyclists were asked if they would like to bicycle more, 67% said no, there were too many cars or hills or it seemed generally unsafe. By contrast, people who walked at least 10 minutes a week were twice as likely as bikers to say it was very easy to walk where they lived. It’s true, as long as there’s a sidewalk, it’s pretty easy. If it is a wide, evenly paved, unobstructed sidewalk it’s very easy. Add some pedestrian-friendly trees to provide distance from the traffic and an attractive environment along the way with small views, inviting architecture, welcoming homes or storefronts and it is downright pleasant.

Just do it. Walk.

So start small. Pick an easy walking destination. If it’s raining, drive to work, but if its not, walk from your house to the bus stop and then from the bus stop to your workplace. If you have a few errands to run, park in one place and walk to the rest, starting with the store where you’ll have the smallest and lightest purchases. If you’re going to a dense area of a city, be part of the new frugality of 2009. Instead of driving directly into the parking garage of the museum, theatre or department store, find a free or inexpensive parking spot at the fringe of the downtown area, and walk to your destination. Above all, don’t make yourself miserable. If you have heavy packages or your kids don’t look like they’re going to cooperate, then drive this time and walk when you’re just picking up a few things or you find yourself kid-free for a few hours. After a while, destinations that are a bit farther away may seem attractive, but too time-consuming to walk to. These are the places to consider for a trial bike trip, but only on the next dry, sunny opportunity, and only if you think the traffic and hills will not be overwhelming. If it seems doable, try it out, maybe a few times, because while its true that you never forget how to ride a bike, you definitely forget the feeling. Getting on a bike after years with your feet on the ground or the gas pedal can be a freaky, unstable experience. If you don’t like it, don’t do it.

Walking is the entry drug for car-free transportation and there’s no need to step up to the cocaine of bicycling. Ever. Walking can be a life-long option and bicycling may not be. By walking, you can go just about anywhere; on bike, nearly everywhere; and in a car, only where there is a legal roadway. Although bicycling can deliver you at your destination awake and energized, you may also finish your journey soaking wet, lightly sprinkled with drops of mud, sweaty, and absolutely inappropriately attired. Walking means you can wear your normal clothes (although you may want to bring a change of shoes), carry your normal bag or briefcase, travel at your own pace, rather than that dictated by traffic and your gearing system, and look like a regular person when you arrive. There will be downsides. You’ll find out your shoes are too hard or your umbrella is too flimsy. As I said, don’t make yourself unhappy. Do it when it pleases you. Do it when you have time. But just do it. Just walk.

Chris Tachibana

Chris Tachibana is a science writer at

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